The African American Journey


The First Years of Freedom


Immediately after the Civil War, a time known as Reconstruction, the federal government attended to the problems of helping the newly freed slaves find jobs, housing, and the means to acquire an education. But as African Americans struggled to enter society after the Civil War, forces of racism worked against them.


In many areas, laws blocked their right to vote, move freely in society, and own property. Lynching and killing of African Americans also occurred regularly. The federal government became less and less effective at providing opportunities and protections, but African Americans began to establish their own institutions that came to play an important role in the struggle for freedom and equal rights.


After the Civil War, most Southern whites resented the new status of blacks. The whites simply could not accept the idea of former slaves voting and holding office. As a result, attempts by Southern blacks to vote, run for public office, or enjoy other civil rights were met by increasing violence from whites in the South. In 1865 and 1866, about 5,000 Southern blacks were murdered. Forty-six blacks were killed when their schools and churches were burned in Memphis in May 1866. In July, 34 blacks were killed during a race riot in New Orleans.


James Brennan, Museum Educator at the National Civil War Museum, talks about African American soldiers in the Civil War.


Some law enforcement officers encouraged or participated in assaults on blacks. But lawless groups carried out most attacks. One of the largest, the Ku Klux Klan, was organized in 1865 or 1866 in Pulaski, Tenn. Bands of hooded Klansmen rode at night and beat and murdered many blacks and their white sympathizers. The Klan did much to deny blacks their civil and human rights throughout Reconstruction.


The federal government tried to maintain the rights of African Americans. In 1870 and 1871, Congress passed laws authorizing the use of federal troops to enforce the voting rights of blacks. These laws were known as the Enforcement Acts or the Ku Klux Klan Acts. In addition, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a proclamation demanding respect for the civil rights of all Americans.


During the late 1800's, blacks in the South increasingly suffered from segregation, the loss of voting rights, and other forms of discrimination. Their condition reflected beliefs held by most Southern whites that whites were born superior to blacks with respect to intelligence, talents, and moral standards. In 1881, the Tennessee legislature passed a law that required railroad passengers to be separated by race. In 1890, Mississippi adopted several measures that in effect ended voting by African Americans. These measures included the passing of reading and writing tests and the payment of a poll tax before a person could vote.


Several decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court enabled the Southern States to establish "legal" segregation practices. In 1883, for example, the court declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 to be unconstitutional. That act had guaranteed blacks the right to be admitted to any public place. In addition, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1868, had forbidden the states to deny equal rights to any person. But in 1896, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson that a Louisiana law requiring the separation of black and white railroad passengers was constitutional. The court argued that segregation in itself did not represent inequality and that separate public facilities could be provided for the races as long as the facilities were equal. This ruling, known as the "separate but equal doctrine," became the basis of Southern race relations. In practice, however, nearly all the separate schools, places of recreation, and other public facilities provided for blacks were far inferior to those provided for whites.


Sandra Day O'Connor, associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (retired), explains how the 1st and the 14th amendments have shaped legal decisions.


In spite of the increasing difficulties for African Americans, a number of them won distinction during the late 1800's. For example, Samuel Lowery started a school for blacks in Huntsville, Ala., in 1875 and won prizes at international fairs for silk made at the school. In 1883, Jan E. Matzeliger invented a revolutionary shoe-lasting machine that shaped the upper part of a shoe and fastened it to the sole. Jockey Isaac Murphy won the Kentucky Derby in 1884, 1890, and 1891--the first rider to win it three times. Mary Church Terrell helped found the National Association of Colored Women in 1896 and advised government leaders on racial problems. Charles Waddell Chesnutt wrote The Conjure Woman, published in 1899. He became the first major African American novelist and short-story writer.


During the Early 1900's, discrimination against Southern blacks became even more widespread. By 1907, every Southern state required racial segregation on trains and in churches, schools, hotels, restaurants, theaters, and other public places. The Southern States also adopted an election practice known as the white primary. The states banned blacks from voting in the Democratic Party's primary elections by calling them "private affairs." But the winners of the primary elections were certain of victory in the general elections because Republican and independent candidates got little support from whites and rarely ran for office. By 1910, every Southern state had taken away or begun to take away the right of African Americans to vote.


The Ku Klux Klan also attempted to keep blacks from voting through an increased use of threats, beatings, and killings. More than 3,000 blacks had been lynched during the late 1800's, and the Klan and members of similar groups lynched hundreds more throughout the South during the early 1900's.


African Americans had little opportunity to better themselves economically. Some laws prohibited them from teaching and from entering certain other businesses and professions. Large numbers of blacks had to take low-paying jobs as farm hands or servants for white employers. Many other blacks became sharecroppers or tenant farmers. They rented a small plot of land and paid the rent with money earned from the crops. They had to struggle to survive, and many ran up huge debts to their white landlords or the town merchants.


This article is from The World Book Encyclopedia.